The claim of Carl Schmitt, the German political scientist, that in essence politics boils down to ‘who is my friend, who is my enemy’ enjoys growing acceptance in different quarters. Too often, in a supposed age of ideological politics, causes big and small have been capsized by personal enmities. Scottish Nationalism is just the latest example. A famous alliance between the man who put it on the map and his chief disciple, collapsed into bitter enmity, contributing to the retreat of a once formidable cause. In Spain this week, the conservative nationalist party Vox, after poor electoral results, also seems bedevilled by personality disputes.
But in the longer sweep of history, it shouldn’t be forgotten that one of the reasons why democratic politics has taken off and persisted in Europe is because of the taming of the personality factor.
Parties were the units created to advance an agenda of improvement that citizens would hopefully endorse. They inevitably attracted diverse types. Effective movements saw campaigners and orators close ranks with figures whose skills were to be found in drawing up legislation, negotiating, and committee work.. The desire to win elections in order to alter power relations in a society, make improvements, and rescue a country from difficulties or danger, enabled disparate types to shelve personality differences and cooperate.
In Britain during the middle of World War 1, the danger of defeat at the hands of Germany, saw a remarkable transformation of human relations at elite level. Under David Lloyd-George, a coalition of Liberals and Tories was drawn from politicians who had been ready to fight a civil-war just two years before over the future of Ulster as Irish Home Rule loomed.
From 1945 to 1951, Britain saw an unprecedented wave of change at the societal and economic level under Labour politicians who conspired against one another due to mutual dislike. To take just one example, when a Labour figure remarked that the home secretary, Herbert Morrison was his own worst enemy, the then foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin riposted, ‘Not while I’m alive he aint’.
These touchy figures nevertheless kept their vicious feuding in check. The hand of history was on their shoulders. The transformation of attitudes brought about by the struggle against Hitler had released a demand for fundamental changes. The Attlee government concentrated on accomplishing some of them and postponing the settling of scores until the 1950s when Labour was out of office.
But the curbing of personal feuding can also be used to perpetuate bad political practices or outright despotism. There is no doubt that when the full story of the forty years of repressive and corrupt rule by a ruling clique of mullahs in Iran is written, the intensity of some of the rivalries will spring forth. Nevertheless, despite being reviled by much of the nation, this deplorable outfit has remained a cohesive one perhaps because the violent history of the country underlines one salient fact for ruling groups: if you don’t hang together you will surely hang separately.
In Italy, unity among often unethical politicians helps explain why one party, the Christian Democrats, exercised dominance for much of the time between 1945 and 1992. This centre-right political platform was increasingly a collection of powerful factions. I describe the resulting misrule in my new book, Europe’s Leadership Famine.
It pays attention in particular to how a devious and supple figure like Giulio Andreotti was able to channel the ambitions and appetites of his colleagues into a formula for the long-term exercise of state power.
I was drawn to reflect on the ability of politicians to curb their mutual aggression for good or bad ends, by one curious development in Edinburgh this week.
Exploiting a certain talent for the theatrical, Alex Salmond has put on a show of political entertainment at the Fringe Festival. His outsized personality has not proven to be the locomotive needed to allow his new party, Alba, to race past the one that spurned him, the Scottish National Party (SNP). Nevertheless, the stars seem to be aligning for this political survivor after almost a decade in the doldrums.
Nicola Sturgeon, arguably the person who tried to prematurely end his political career by standing over a range of accusations of misconduct against women which ended up going to trial in 2021 him being acquitted, now sits on the backbenches at Holyrood, the seat of the Scottish parliament. He would possibly have liked to have been the one to drive her from office on account of letting down the cause of Scottish independence, the one that had made them close comrades. But it was her own behaviour and an ego that eclipses even his which led to tactical missteps, policy failures, and reckless overreach which resulted in her resigning on 15 February 2023.
Today the infighting and recriminations in separatist ranks exceeds that seen in the Labour of the 1950s or the Italian Christian Democrats once prosecutors started to uncover various cases of corruption. The disarray is shown by the willingness of several leading SNP names to appear as guests on Salmond’s festival show – the man forced out of the party by the hostility of a scheming successor determined not to allow him to upstage her in any way.
Heads were turned when Salmond said that he would not rule out working with Nicola Sturgeon again. ‘Never say never’ was his mischievous response when he was asked whether recent rancour could ever be put aside. She had, after all, used her grip on the civil-service and indeed parts of the justice system (the chief prosecutor sits in the government) to facilitate a prosecution that could have resulted not only in Salmond’s disgrace but long years of detention.
In a tweet posted on 9 August I criticised Salmond’s remark. It suggested there was a club atmosphere in nationalist ranks where the importance of the cause far exceeded the need for a minimum degree of ethical behaviour.
One member of Alba tweeted that if a rapprochement ever blossomed, he would walk out of the party. For much of the year, Salmond had been busy speaking to branches across Scotland. I doubt if any followers have urged him to make up with someone increasingly seen as an imposter by nationalists who feel that she has sabotaged the independence movement for her own narcissistic ambitions.
In a long career, Salmond built up his movement by making an underlying sense of resentment towards the role of various British power centres located in London go mainstream. Lower-income groups were encouraged to feel victims of a cynical and ruthless British ruling class.
But I suspect few contemporary Scots felt as victimised as Salmond himself, especially when he was struggling to clear his name and stay out of jail in 2019-21. Sturgeon was then at the height of her power and the state was very much answerable to her.
On 22 February 2021, he declared that a malicious attempt’ was being made to remove him from public life. He named Sturgeon’s husband, the CEO of the party, and her chief of staff Liz Lloyd, as well as prosecuting service as determined adversaries who were out to get him.
Thirty months later, while grievance politics remains central to driving forward the nationalist cause, Salmond seems content to leave the language of victimhood for the masses to absorb.
As he puts on a political light entertainment show in Edinburgh, he seems to wish to appear the conciliatory uncle of what is now a rather shop-soiled cause.
Actually, I can see why he scales down the indignation which might have consumed figures with less self-belief who suddenly found themselves outcasts in their own political family.
It isn’t in his interest to give Sturgeon any excuse to reprise her role as a defender of women in jeopardy at the hands of powerful men. The autobiography she announced that she was penning, hard on the heels of Salmond’s intriguing remark, will probably emphasise her role as a paragon of identity politics (with Scottish Nationalism having to share billing with climate change, gender-self-identification and the Me Too movement).
It is in Salmond’s interest for Sturgeon gradually to become the irrelevance that she tried to turn him into. If the widening scope of police investigations into the financial affairs of the party and state which she had the ability to micro-managed in many ways, results in more involuntary visits to police stations and the need to hire lawyers and prepare defences, how will he respond?
My hunch is that this self-regarding but also canny politician will not crow over it but instead display charity or else remain tight-lipped.
However, he has not kept his counsel about the alliance with the Scottish Greens which Sturgeon engineered after the 2021 Holyrood elections. He would be unlikely to call Patrick Harvie’s raft of measures to restrict human activity in the name of a planetary cause, climate communism. But he must be aware of how small business firms and Scots on lower incomes feel about the rise of a small unrepresentative party keen to confiscate both freedoms and income.
Without a Sturgeon whose fame catapulted outwards during the Cop 27 summit in Glasgow three years ago, the SNP-Green alliance would never have happened. It makes sense for him to keep quiet about her ruthless exploitation of her position and instead focus on her willingness to allow fringe figures to shape the direction of her government with Scots outside the power elite being the victims of their eco-zealotry.
Salmond’s olive branch to an arch-enemy has offended many. It likely confirms to many who have quit the SNP in the recent past the sleazy and transactional nature of the small political world that has done a lot of harm to the country. But his offbeat move has won him publicity and probably put her on the back foot. Publicity is what this entrepreneur of ethnocentrism lives and breathes. He knows that, at 68, his chances of exercising state power again are remote ones.
Instead, he wishes to hasten the departure into obscurity of an ally who, with little warning, became a fierce enemy. Being infuriatingly nice to her might further that ambition. But there is a darker backcloth: the domination of petty and personal politics in Scotland amply shows a country where, as in much of the rest of Europe, the political stage has narrowed to include a very few actors. So far there is no sign of the voters being allowed to have even a brief cameo appearance as prima donnas of politics prepare their memoirs and put on political cabarets.
The article suggested that the idea from Alex Salmond of a bromance, or tactical understanding, between enemies who once had comprised the most effective partnership in British politics was unlikely to enjoy much appeal.
24 hours later, Salmond did a volte-face and declared in an interview that ‘Nicola Sturgeon has become a “sad, reduced figure” and should undertake a “period of silence” while she is under police investigation’.
He went on: ‘The reality is she led independence into a cul-de-sac’.
If that’s what he really thinks, his idea of extending an olive branch appears a downright quixotic one.